FSC | Field Studies Council

Field Studies Council: Bringing Environmental Understanding to All

1980s Peter Smithers, Plymouth University - FSC Juniper Hall

My official introduction to spiders was on a Field Studies Council course at Box Hill, run by the late Francis Murphy.

Francis was the godmother of British Arachnology, an international expert with a passion for encouraging others to become enchanted by her muse and take up the study of spiders. She was a cross between your favourite aunt and a truly terrifying headmistress, kind, patient encouraging but told you firmly where you had gone wrong and sent you back to start again, even if it was your tenth attempt to get it right. Francis was loved by all and is greatly missed.

Life at Boxhill in the late 1980‘s was wonderfully British, a step back in time to a more relaxed age. The FSC centre (Juniper Hall) was a large house set in its grounds on the lower slopes of Box Hill. The ground floor had a suite of oak panelled rooms and large comfortable arm chairs, a wonderful library and a grand staircase. Tea and cake was served at 11 and then again at 3, dinner was then at 8 and staff and students dined together turning the meal into another casual tutorial. We lived and breathed spiders for the entire weekend. 

Over the course we visited several different habitats to collect spiders. An hour or so in the field then back to the lab with our vials of preserved spiders to identify. Here we peered down microscopes looking for characteristic eye patterns, various arrangements of spinnerets, counted foot claws and hunted for the elusive trichobothria. These are extremely long and fine hairs that sense airborne vibrations. They are arranged along the various sections of a spiders leg and provide the equivalent of our binocular vision. As spiders have eight legs with eight sets of trichibothria, when a vibration in the air is detected it arrives at each tricobothria at a subtle different time and different intensities. These differences allow the spider to calculate exactly where they have come from and if the source is a threat or a potential prey.  The position of these can fine hairs be crucial in determining which group of spiders we were looking at especially the tiny money spiders of the family Linyphiidae. In this group their position on the front leg is crucial in determining  the genus to which the spider belongs. To be able to locate and measure the position of the trichobothria was an essential skill for anyone who wanted to identify spiders to species. Thus we spent hours hunting for this gossamer thin hair that always eluded the apprentice. A hair so fine it was only seen when one was not looking for it, a touch of Heisenbergs uncertainty principal. A ghost in the arachnological machine that was always just out of reach. Until that one time when the merest hint of an image drifted briefly into focus before vanishing. Frantic re focusing and an exclamation of “is that it”. Francis would look down your microscope and lay her hand on a shoulder “Yes that is it”. A line had been crossed, the grand mistress had acknowledge your first step on the arachnological highway which now lay open before you.

Over the years I have attended a number of FSC courses and gained a huge amount from all of them, I am in your debt. In fact  I enjoyed them so much that next year I am teaching a general invertebrate course at Slapton in Devon.